Tag Archives: M

Jokers, Parasites and Fear

17 Oct

Why are people so afraid of Joker?

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In the September 25th issue of The New Yorker, Pauline Kael asked “Are people becoming afraid of American movies?” 

This was, of course, 1978, not 2019. Yet it seems likely the great film critic would have asked the same question forty-one years later, given the critical hysteria over Todd Phillip’s Joker.

Kael continued: 

When acquaintances ask me what they should see and I say The Last Waltz or Convoy or Eyes of Laura Mars, I can see the recoil. It’s the same look of distrust I encountered when I suggested Carrie or The Fury or Jaws or Taxi Driver or the two Godfathers before that… They don’t see why they should subject themselves to experiences that will tie up their guts or give them nightmares….Discriminating moviegoers want the placidity of nice art—of movies tamed so that they are no more arousing than what used to be called polite theatre. So we’ve been getting a new cultural puritanism… and the press is full of snide references to Coppola’s huge film in progress, and a new film by Peckinpah is greeted with derision…

The parallels to today should be obvious to anyone following much of the critical reaction to Phillip’s brilliant and deeply unsettling masterpiece.

I’m a fan, obviously. Joker is one of the best films I’ve seen in years. If left me shaken, disturbed and in need of a double shot of Bulleit. Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, the troubled man at the center of the movie, delivers one of the great cinematic performances of all time. Brimming with dozens of cinematic references, the movie is gorgeously crafted: this was a crew that working overtime on every single frame. Joker resonates on a deep emotional level, particularly for those of us who have struggled personally or dealt socially with madness. Joker is upsetting for many reasons, not the least of which is that although it’s set in fictional Gotham of 1981, the movie thrusts many troubling aspects of our present society in our face, forcing us to bear witness.

The movie certainly has many fellow defenders. Joker won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival where it received an eight minute standing ovation. And the public is supporting the movie with wild abandon: the film is a smash hit worldwide, already earning over half a billion dollars.  In the US alone it had the biggest October opening weekend ever and broke even more records this past weekend, its second. Hitting #1 the second weekend is telling: films can have a big opening but then fall off once word of mouth spreads a movie is a stinker. Joker is not falling off. People are continuing to go see it. 

Yet many critics are assaulting the movie. I don’t mean the typical “I didn’t like this and here’s why” type of reviews. Before Joker’s release two weeks ago these critics were clearly trying to hurt the film, cripple its box office and wipe it from memory before it could get going.

Here’s a quick look at what some of these critics had to say:  “a viewing experience of a rare, numbing emptiness.” “ punishingly dull”, “pompous, grim, relentlessly one-note”, “Dangerous”, “pernicious garbage” , “grim, shallow, distractingly derivative”, a dangerous manifesto that could inspire incels to commit acts of violence” and “wildly dull and mundanely uninteresting”, which, if you’ve seen the movie, even if you hated it, has to appear ridiculous given what happens in Joker. To call this particular movie dull and uninteresting is in itself “wildly dull and mundanely uninteresting.”

Clearly the movie is getting under these critics’ skin. They are attempting to render Joker immoral, often wildly misrepresenting the movie and its contents in order to do so.

One frequent attack is that the movie is hero worshipping a killer, that it’s a how-to manifesto for incel violence, and that the movie turns the hero “into an angry guy with a gun and violent disregard for everyone.”

But this isn’t true in the slightest. Joker doesn’t go rampaging through the city shooting at any or everyone (see multiple action movies that garner no critical attacks). Key here are two sequences: one in which Arthur lets a co-worker go free after killing another co-worker: “You were the only one who was nice to me.”  The other is Arthur’s TV appearance. He easily could have been depicted as going on a rampage, shooting into the audience, yet he only kills one man, the man who made fun of him. The violence in the movie, while shocking and horrifying, is nothing compared to normal screen violence (see multiple action movies that garner no critical attacks). In fact, compared to such movies the body count in Joker is quite low.

Something interesting is going on. Continue reading